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Firearm Spirituality

Lessons from a 30-06

For MW

By Will Brown 

I am a hunter. I have written a fair amount about hunting from a theological point of view. Among other things, hunting provides me with lean, healthy food, comparatively free of the synthetic chemicals that saturate most commercially produced food. It also limits my participation in a food economy that evaluates animals (and everything else) in terms of their monetary value and, in consequence, tolerates a great deal of cruelty and pollution.

I went deer hunting five times this season. The highlight of my season was when a young buck walked by my blind, about 10 feet away, unaware of my presence. He was so close I could hear his feet in the grass. He was legal to shoot, and I had permission from my host, the landowner, but I knew that he was not the sort of deer that my host wanted shot. He had fine, symmetrical antlers, and an athletic build. But he was young, probably two-and-a-half years old. While the oldest known white-tailed deer was a twenty-four-year-old captive doe, at Kerr Wildlife Management Area, in Texas, most deer don’t live past the age of about six in the wild. Bucks are sexually mature at one-and-a-half, and a healthy buck, given a chance to breed for several seasons, will pass on good genes to his offspring, thereby strengthening the herd over time. I let the young buck go, feeling myself blessed and contented by such a close encounter.

By that point in the season, I had already killed one doe. I hoped for one or two more so as to have a good supply of venison for the year. Not only is venison healthier than commercially raised beef, but beef has become very expensive lately. Furthermore, there is an overabundance of deer in my part of the world. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources permits each hunter in my county to shoot twelve per season, two of which may be antlered (i.e., mature males). A friend whom I took hunting wound up killing a mature buck and gave me the meat because he was visiting from New York and didn’t want the hassle or expense of having it shipped. I killed another doe toward the end of the season, quite a large one, and so wound up with a freezer full of venison, almost two hundred pounds of it. It was a bit more than I could accommodate, and so I was able to give some to friends in need.

As a hunter, I am also a gun owner. I do not apologize for this. Guns are tools, and like any tool they must be appropriate to the task at hand. For many years I have hunted large game with a Winchester, Model 70, chambered in 30-06 (pronounced “thirty aught six”). It is a classic and imminently serviceable rifle, with a handsome, if unrefined, walnut stock, and a controlled feed bolt action, based on a renowned design by Mauser and first introduced in the 19th century. I opted for 30-06 because ammunition is relatively easy to find, it has a long and proven track record on a wide variety of game, and because it is a quintessentially American round. It was introduced in 1906 (thus the “06” in “30-06”) by Springfield Armory of Springfield, Massachusetts, the primary manufacturer of firearms for the U.S. military from 1777 until it closed in 1968. Many, perhaps most, military rifles were chambered in 30-06 during the middle part of the 20th century, including the primary service rifle for the U.S. military during World War II and the Korean War, the M1 Garand. Over 5 million M1 Garands were produced, and U.S. military machine guns continued to be chambered in 30-06 through the Vietnam War, after the Garand was replaced, first by the M14, then by the M16, and finally by the M4, the primary U.S. military carbine in use today. But soldiers coming home from World War II and Korea naturally sought out rifles chambered in 30-06 for hunting. It was what they were used to.

The “30” in “30-06” refers to the caliber, or diameter, of the bullet. In the United States, calibers are typically measured in hundredths of an inch. So a 30-caliber bullet is approximately 30/100 (0.3) of an inch in diameter. Bullet calibers touch on many aspects of shooting, like the bullet’s ballistic coefficient, a measure of its ability to overcome wind resistance in flight. One of the most important measures affected by caliber is the amount of energy the bullet conveys to a target when it hits at a given distance, usually measured in foot-pounds of energy. All else being equal, hunters generally want the highest amount of terminal energy possible, because high terminal energy helps to kill game quickly, minimizing (or entirely eliminating) the animal’s suffering, as well as the need to track it after it has been shot. A well-placed shoulder shot on a broadside deer, using a well-designed 30 caliber bullet, will kill the deer almost instantly. Because bullets generally travel considerably faster than the speed of sound, the deer will literally be unconscious before the sound of the shot reaches its ears, and dead a few seconds later.

When a trigger is pulled, the tension on a spring inside the trigger mechanism is released, causing a pin to strike the primer on the back of the cartridge case inside the rifle chamber. This causes a spark, which in turn ignites the propellant powder inside of the cartridge case. The resulting explosion propels the bullet, seated in the opposite end of the case, forward, out of the cartridge case, down the barrel of the rifle, and out of the rifle’s muzzle. There is a corollary to the muzzle energy of a bullet leaving the bore of a rifle, and those familiar with Isaac Newton’s third law of motion will have deduced it: the energy transferred by the explosion to the rifle itself. This energy (likewise generally measured in foot-pounds) is denoted by the word “recoil.”

Because the chambers of firearms are made of thick steel, the energy produced when the firearm is discharged generally travels straight back, down the buttstock of a rifle. In autoloading rifles, this energy is put to a useful purpose, cycling the action of the rifle, ejecting the spent cartridge case, and loading another cartridge into the chamber. In a bolt action rifle, such as my Model 70, the shooter does this himself, by turning the bolt handle, pulling the action back to eject the spent cartridge case, and pushing it forward again to load a fresh cartridge. On non-autoloading rifles, no energy dissipates through the cycling of the action.

Most of the recoil energy from a rifle’s discharge winds up in the shooter’s shoulder. This energy can be considerable, especially in larger-caliber rifles firing heavier bullets. The 30-06, for example, generates relatively strong recoil (almost 20 foot-pounds), though just within the threshold of what most adult shooters find tolerable. The problem here is not just the unpleasantness of being punched in the shoulder: shooters can develop the unfortunate habit of jerking the trigger, flinching as they pull it, as they anticipate the recoil. And this can result in inaccurate shots, missing an animal altogether, or (even worse) wounding it and having it run off. I am not particularly averse to recoil, and I have never missed an animal, nor wounded one, because I jerked the trigger or flinched as I fired. But for the last few years, my right shoulder has been bothering me, especially when I articulate my arm in certain ways or lift heavy things.

On my last hunt of this deer season, I had been sitting in my blind for several hours and had seen nothing. I had recited Evening Prayer, mostly from memory, and with a little help with psalmody and Scripture readings from an app on my smartphone. Finally, about 10 minutes before the end of legal shooting light, just as the sun was setting, several does materialized on the far end of the clearing, about 200 yards away. Through my rifle scope I picked out the largest, and watched her as she fed up to a tree that I knew to be exactly 100 yards from my blind. As I was preparing to pull the trigger, going through my instinctual checklist — double-checking distance, making sure there were no other deer (or anything else) behind her, nothing that looked like a dependent fawn in the vicinity, remembering that I had put on hearing protection, finding the rifle’s safety latch with my thumb, etc. — I noticed that an awareness of my achy right shoulder hovered in the back of my mind, that I was compensating for it by taking extra care at each step of the shooting process. The buttstock is pressed firmly into my shoulder. The crosshair is just behind the doe’s shoulder. My breathing is slow and steady. I am prepared to allow the inevitable blast and punch to surprise me, focused on not anticipating it. The doe’s head is down, she is feeding again, and standing broadside to me. I push the safety latch forward with my thumb and feel the gentle click of it disengaging. I am ready. About one heartbeat past the end of an exhalation of breath, the crosshair is still where it is supposed to be, and I gently squeeze (don’t jerk!) the trigger.

There is the familiar blast and punch. I see the muzzle flash in the rifle scope, and beyond the flash the doe leaps and kicks out her back legs. This almost certainly means that the bullet has gone through her heart. I instinctively chamber another round, and follow her through the scope as she bounds into the woods. Deer are amazing creatures, even shot through the heart and both lungs, as this one was, they can survive for a few seconds, enough time to run for a hundred yards or so. The best way to prevent this is by aiming a little farther forward and a little higher than the traditional advice, which is just behind the shoulder. Aiming a little farther forward and a little higher will place the bullet more squarely on the shoulder itself, still a heart and lung shot, but the shoulder bone will cause the bullet to expand faster, as it is designed to do, creating more hydrostatic shock as it enters the deer’s chest cavity. There is, moreover, a major junction of cervical and thoracic nerves just behind the shoulder blade, the brachial plexus. A high shoulder shot destroys this junction, a major element of the peripheral nervous system. This doesn’t necessarily kill it faster, but it usually causes it to lose consciousness instantly, before dying a few seconds later. Yet old habits die hard, and I had aimed just behind the shoulder, so the doe ran.

I heard her fall somewhere in the woods. Re-engaging the safety, I set the rifle down and reached for my shoulder, probing it a bit with my fingertips, rubbing at the ache. The recoil had not made it any worse, but it had made me more aware of it.

I waited about 15 minutes before leaving the blind. If given time and not pursued, a deer that has been injured will usually bed down after running a short distance, and usually die fairly quickly. But if an eager hunter begins to track it too soon, the deer will typically try to get away, surviving on adrenaline, and outpacing the tracker or crossing a property boundary. The net result can be an unrecovered deer, and an animal’s life wasted. To mitigate the risk of such an unfortunate outcome, it is good for hunters to foster the discipline of sitting quietly for a while after they shoot, giving the deer time to die. I had heard this doe fall a few seconds after the shot, crashing against the brush. I was confident that she was dead, but it is best to err on the side of caution.

It was dark when I left the blind. I texted my host, telling him that I had shot a doe, got out my flashlight and walked to where the deer had been standing when I shot her. There was a fair amount of bright blood on the ground — a good sign. Bright red blood, or blood that is pinkish and frothy, means that a deer has been hit in a vital area (pinkish froth is caused by small oxygen bubbles from pulmonary action, and indicates that a deer has been hit in the lungs). I followed the blood drops in the direction I had seen her run. The trail led into the edge of the woods, and I pressed through the brush, following the blood, pausing after each spattered leaf to scan for the next one. After a few minutes, I saw her in the beam of my flashlight, piled up in the brush, dead.

I heard my host pulling up in his truck. Fetching a blaze-orange bandana from my backpack, I tied it at eye-level around the trunk of a small tree next to the deer in order to mark the spot, and pushed back through the brush into the clearing and signaled to my host with my flashlight. When we got back to the deer, we knelt down together in the leaf litter and prayed, thanking God in the name of his Son for the life of this deer, for the well-stewarded habitat that had sustained her, and for the sustenance she would become for us, asking God in his mercy to make us worthy of such gifts, and never to let us take them for granted.

We loaded her into the bed of my pickup, and I drove to a processing place the next town over. On arrival they weighed her: 136 pounds, very large for a doe in this part of the country. After processing, I would get a little less than half of this “on the hoof” weight in meat, the rest being bones, viscera, and hide. After I explained to the processor what I wanted — hamburger, sausage, a whole bone-in shoulder (for braising), and a selection of roasts — I drove home.

It was late when I got there, and my wife was already in bed. I built a fire and poured myself a glass of bourbon, sat down by the fire and ruminated on the day’s events. When I judged the ice to have melted enough to pacify the bourbon, I lifted the glass to take an initial sip. Again, a twinge in my right shoulder. The achiness has come and gone over the last few years, but with the passage of time it comes with greater frequency than it goes. My left knee also likes to fuss from time to time. One afternoon, hunting in the mountains of western Colorado last season, it put up a very petulant fuss indeed, as I was making a pretty steep descent off of a mountaintop in the snow. We had to find another way down to accommodate the raging knee.

What underwrites all this? Old injuries. The need to lose weight. The advent of middle age, reliably confirmed by my increasing affinity for “smooth contemporary jazz.” That is it, most fundamentally: the slippage of time, and the dissolution of the flesh that accompanies it, the gradual return to the elements out of which I was formed. This of course is the common destiny of all flesh, something I share with the animals I hunt, a point of connection running between me and the doe I had killed, as though following the trajectory of the bullet from the rifle pressed into my achy right shoulder, to the spot covered by the crosshair just behind the doe’s:

These wait all upon thee, that thou mayest give them food in due season.
When thou givest it them, they gather it; and when thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good.
When thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: when thou takest away their breath, they die, and are turned again to their dust. (Ps. 104:27-29)

Hunting signifies a lot, and among the things it signifies most forcefully are the inevitability of death, and the necessity of death in order to sustain life. These facts are inescapable. Even vegetarians must contend with the fact that in our time agriculture is the number one cause of habitat loss, and that habitat loss is the number one cause of species extinction. No matter what you eat, animals must die to make your eating possible. Human life, and the whole range of its activities, is a grand memento mori, if we care to see it, and therefore a reminder of our fall from grace, our aching need for healing, for redemption, for resurrection. Hunting is certainly so for me, and this season it was underscored by the beastly recoil of my 30-06.



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